Take a look around you – maybe you’re eating a banana, drinking coffee, or sitting in front of your computer and taking a break from work to read this article. Chances are, those products, as well as your smartphone, refrigerator, and virtually every other item in your home, were once loaded into a large container in another country and traveled thousands of miles via ships that crossed the ocean before. to finally arrive at your door.
“Today’s largest ships can carry 24,000 containers, which is the equivalent of a 44-mile long freight train. ”
Today, the standard container size is 20 feet long, the same width, but more commonly half a foot taller, a size known as a “20-foot equivalent container unit” or TEU. There are actually a few different “standard” sizes, like 40 feet long or slightly taller, although they are all the same width. One of the key benefits is that whatever the size of a ship, they all, like Lego blocks, fit together perfectly, with virtually no gaps. This innovation made the modern globalized world possible. The amount of containerized freight soared from 102 million metric tons in 1980 to approximately 1.83 billion metric tons in 2017. Most containerized traffic flows through the Pacific Ocean or between Europe and Asia, generally through the Suez Canal. The standardization of container sizes has also led to an increase in ship sizes. The more containers packed on a ship, the more a shipping company can earn on each trip. In fact, the average size of a container ship has doubled in the last 20 years alone. The largest ships sailing today are capable of carrying 24,000 containers, a cargo capacity equivalent to the cargo capacity of a 44-mile long freight train. Put another way, a ship called the Globe with a capacity of 19,100 20-foot containers could carry 156 million pairs of shoes, 300 million tablets, or 900 million cans of baked beans, should you feel hungry. The Ever Given has a similar capacity of 20,000 containers, although it was only carrying 18,300 when it got stuck in the Suez Canal. In terms of cost, imagine this: the typical pre-pandemic price of transporting a 20-foot container from Asia to Europe with more than 20 tons of cargo was roughly the same as that of a budget ticket to fly the same trip. The increasing size of the ships comes at a cost, as the Ever Given situation demonstrated. Shipping has become increasingly important to global trade and supply chains, but it was quite invisible until the recent traffic jam and blockade of the Suez Canal. As the Ever Given traversed the 120-mile narrow channel, strong gusts of wind pushed it ashore and its 200,000 tonnes of weight stuck it in the mud. Approximately 12% of the world’s maritime traffic passes through this channel. The blockade had, at one point, at least 369 trapped ships waiting to pass through the canal from either side, at an estimated cost of $ 9.6 billion per day. That translates to $ 400 million per hour, or $ 6.7 million per minute. Shipbuilding companies continue to work on building ever larger container ships, and there is little evidence that this trend will stop anytime soon. Some forecast that ships capable of carrying loads 50% larger than Ever Given will sail the open sea by 2030. In other words, the standardized shipping container remains more popular – and in demand – than ever. Anna Nagurney is Professor of Operations Management at the John F. Smith Memorial at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This was first published by The Conversation: “Today’s global economy runs on standardized shipping containers, as illustrated by the Ever Given fiasco.”